'Colonial charm' - the cliche that hides the ugly history of many popular cities

There was always a moment, most days at least, on that trip around Peru and Bolivia where we would all turn to stare at the two Spanish girls.

This was a three-week tour through two of South America's most amazing countries, a budget journey for like-minded backpackers all up for a bit of education and a good time. Almost every day we would be viewing historical sites, learning about ancient civilisations such as the Moche, the Chimu, the Nazca, and of course the Inca.

And almost all of these tours would include a similar theme. This place looked like this, the guide would say, describing something incredible, something beautiful, before adding… until the Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it.

At that point we would all turn theatrically to the only two Spanish passengers on our tour, lovely women we'd be having a lot of fun with, and stare at them pointedly. They'd always laugh. "It wasn't us!"

That was a fun trip, and those moments were light-hearted teasing. Everyone was in on the joke. But it also masked a confronting reality: most of us on that tour descended from colonial cultures. There were only two Spaniards, but there were plenty of Brits, and no shortage of Anglo Australians. Our ancestors had all played their part in the sort of destruction of indigenous cultures and landmarks that we were seeing before us in Bolivia and Peru.

This is something to remind yourself of when you're travelling, to be aware of. It's so easy to fall into comfortable cliché, to dismiss the things you're seeing with that most insidious, but common phrase: "colonial charm".

Because there is charm to so many of these places around the world that were designed and created by colonial forces. Wander around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, the main square of this Andean citadel, and tell me that the cathedral there, and the white-washed buildings with their red-tiled roofs, aren't as charming as anywhere you've ever been.

Tell me that about Oaxaca City in Mexico. Or Cartagena in Colombia. Or Galle in Sri Lanka. Or Penang in Malaysia. Or Hanoi in Vietnam.

These places are undeniably beautiful, and wonderful to spend time in. And the phrase "colonial charm" is so easy to apply to them – so much so that you don't even have to look up the travel stories to know that it has been used many times. I'm sure I've used it. Google my name and "colonial charm" and there's no doubt you'll get hits (I can't bring myself to do it).


But there's such incredible ugliness and horror hiding behind that phrase, something we travellers need to start acknowledging. Colonialism isn't charming. Those beautiful buildings you see are the product of a process that is deeply destructive and often highly racist, the attempted eradication of indigenous peoples and cultures by an uninvited occupying force.

Of course, as an Australian you can speak with some authority on this subject, because our modern country's whole existence is owed to the colonial process. It doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to understand that the "charming" buildings that now occupy places like the Rocks in Sydney represent something very different to the Gadigal People, and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People across the country.

Colonialism isn't something to celebrate, certainly not with the glib cliché of charm. Every site we visited on that tour of Bolivia and Peru was a stark example of that. Something amazing had existed here, something of deep cultural and spiritual value and incredible physical beauty… until the Spanish came.

You'll find this played out in so many of our favourite destinations. Any time you're moved to comment on the colonial architecture you see, or to wonder at the quaint cultural throwbacks to Europeans of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, you need to consider how this came to be, and acknowledge those who suffered because of it.

There's an easy and useful way to do this, and that is to view the world through the eyes of the invaded. Go on a tour run by local Indigenous people. Even if it's just for a few hours, though ideally at least a full day. Make a point wherever you go, if your destination has a colonial past, to dig deeper and understand further than just the charm of its architecture.

Listen to the stories of destruction and pain. You don't have to feel personally guilty about this stuff, just as we weren't really expecting the Spanish girls on our tour to beg for forgiveness. But you can at least understand.

It will make for a better travel experience, for a fuller travel experience. It will send money to the right places. It will increase your knowledge of the world. It will make you think differently about your own home. And it might just stop you falling back on that old cliché.

See also: Right now, Australia hates Qantas. But it won't last

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Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

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